Commentary on the "Spanking Club" Case
By Tom Johnson, March 27, 2002,

Of all the news stories I've seen dealing with this brand of abuse, this one may be the hardest for people to play down. Not only were there multiple victims here, but also multiple perpetrators from different places and backgrounds. The age range of the victims is low enough for everyone to see it's not just teens "too old for spanking" that may attract this kind of interest. The younger kids are certainly easier to target, anyway. Perhaps most of all, the fact that some of the perpetrators--one of whose wife was in on it as well, it turns out--preyed on their own kids shows that we have to be vigilant even with those who are understandably granted the freest license to spank, i.e., biological parents (as opposed to some presumptuous coach, priest, or family friend). At the same time, the inclusion of a neighbor girl among Patterson's victims should make every parent consider how much easier their child might be for others to exploit if he or she is conditioned at home to submit to being spanked, let alone in a state of undress. Last but not least, this new awareness and official recognition by federal law enforcement and the courts of spanking as a form of sexual abuse is likely to encourage victims who may otherwise go along with the notion that their treatment is deserved, "for their own good," godly correction, or what have you.

As far as pro-spanking "spin," there seems to be a lot of emphasis on the physical brutality involved in this case, as if maybe to suggest that more moderate spankings ("ordinary spanking," to use one reporter's words) are above suspicion. Consider this quote from a postal inspector: "What we're talking about, it was not just a little paddling with the hand on a kid's backside. They're using paddles, whips, canes and severely brutalizing these very young children, sometimes as young as 4 years old." These aggravating factors are definitely significant and appalling in their own right, yet we shouldn't forget there have been numerous cases of spankings with acknowledged sexual motive that were "just a little paddling with the hand," so to speak. (All spanking, however mild or harsh, is presumably "on the backside.")

On the other hand, with the pretext of discipline gone, maybe this enables people to acknowledge as physically abusive levels of severity they might consider acceptable in other instances. Just recently, many of us learned that the state of Wyoming has declared legal the infliction of "minor bruising associated with reasonable corporal punishment." If nothing else, the overlap between "spanking" and "beating" is harder to deny, being often reinforced by the usage of both the authorities and the newspapers. Whatever term is used for striking a child forcefully and repeatedly with a paddle or switch, it's hardly an extraordinary practice, and certainly not beyond what the law allows. (It'll be interesting, come think of it, to see if Patterson or his cohorts face any child abuse charges at all.) Another plus with the emphasis on brutality in this case: it establishes that a single act may constitute both physical and sexual abuse. I believe failure to recognize this intersection may allow some spankings to escape sexual-grounds criticism by virtue of being physical abuse, or at least bordering thereon.

Some of the authorites also appear to tie the sexual motives behind the spankings to how graphic and invasive the videos were, and the danger is that people might get the idea this type of abuse is always so obvious and indiscreet. And when we're told that the perpetrators "all enjoyed the sadistic beating of kids and the sexual abuse of kids," let's be clear: These were not two separate things they enjoyed; the sadistic beatings were sexual abuse, even it they weren't the totality of it.

Of course, the rhetorical value of this story is hard to really celebrate in light of what these children have gone through, the effects of which I doubt we can fully comprehend. You almost wish there'd been a way to rescue them without tipping them off to the extent their innocence was stolen, which even the younger ones will likely learn over time. It would be nice if they could believe (intuitions notwithstanding) that their parents had only the best caring intentions of teaching them discipline and just got carried away, and somehow be kept from ever knowing that a bunch of strangers around the country and even across the border were watching them get stripped, beaten and humiliated--and enjoying it--and that their parents had invited them to watch and gained from putting on this "show." I imagine some of the victims deeply loved and continue to love their abusers despite all the hurt they suffered, and being separated from them, though imperative and far better in the long run, is a new trauma of its own. I just hope to God there are counselors available for years to come who are up to the task of helping these kids heal. And that's going to be extra hard in a world where spanking remains so prevalent and approved. Just think of how many abuse memory triggers they'll likely encounter. Merely witnessing a mother give her child a mild swat at Wal-Mart could bring back the trauma of what was similarly, albeit far more intensively, done to them some time ago. Not that more intensive corporal punishment doesn't still happen plenty with a fair amount of popular support, as Wyoming illustrates.

Come to think of it, who gets custody of these children now? (Patterson's are reportedly in Ga. state custody at present.) Is there any guarantee that given their history, they'll be off-limits for "old-fashioned discipline"?

More generally, if a child (or teen) suspects he or she is being spanked at home or at school for an adult's enjoyment, what are they advised to do? How should CPS respond to such fears by kids or concerned adults? What should be their criteria for evaluating spankings that are brought to their attention as possible sexual abuse?

Are all pictures of children getting spanked classified as pornography? If not, what's legal and what's contraband? Do the parents of students in schools which practice corporal punishment have any assurance that the paddling of their children won't be recorded by security cameras?

Some retrospective questions beg to be answered as well. For starters, what kind of upbringing did the people in the so-called Spanking Club have? Considering that the ringleader was "fascinated by spanking for as long as he could remember," we have to ask how much this fascination was nurtured by childhood experiences at home, school, or elsewhere. How often did he get spanked, at what ages, and in what manner? How often did he see other children spanked?

Before the pornography came to light, did no one suspect anything sinister? Were the cameras generally hidden from the children? What, if anything, did they tell their friends, teachers, relatives, or other outsiders about getting spanked? Maybe the victims were ordered to keep it secret--or maybe their abusers themselves made no secret of it, confident that the butt bruises and welts would not be exposed to scrutiny. Still, you'd think the neighbors would have heard some of these prolonged beatings and the prolonged, pitiful wailing that accompanied them.

To what extent were the children led to believe the purpose of the spankings was punishment for something "bad" or "naughty" they did (as was the case with some students of the Canadian principal )? How much would that explanation further promote the sense of shame abuse victims tend to have?

If one of the ring's members had regularly and soundly spanked his kids without filming it (or bringing other people's kids into it), would the authorities have considered that grounds to intervene? If so, how many people would call it an outrageous government assault on parental rights, perhaps citing the parent's good standing in the community?

According to the Chicago Tribune, "[Officials] do not believe there will be many other such cases, they said, because the group revolved around a relatively rare fetish." Putting aside the question of what this assessment is based on, I wonder just how rare the fetish is considered to be. Of all adults in a position to spank children, what percentage can we estimate are spanking fetishists? Is it reasonable to expect they'd be most concentrated in professions where authority to spank other people's children is widest? (The more unchecked the license to physically punish and control kids, at least, the more extreme the sadistic proclivities a job seems likely to attract -- see Boot Camps for Kids: Torturing Teenagers for Fun and Profit). And is it only people with a rare spanking fetish who would enjoy the undressing and bending over of children via "punishment," or would simple pedophiles be interested as well, especially since spanking has a veneer of legitimacy, if not righteousness, that most other violations lack? For that matter, couldn't kid-spanking porn appeal to general, non-pedophilic consumers insofar as the kids that are featured include older, sexually mature teens--who are not entirely exempt from socially approved spanking, after all?

Regrettably, the public is not likely to address these issues anytime soon. Based on sample searches, it appears only a relative few U.S. papers ran this story, and I feel pretty sure it didn't make the TV news at all. Strange that so much of the media didn't consider the successful FBI-RCMP sting of a national child pornography network to be major news worth covering, or at least least relaying from wire reports. (Five days later, there were reports of the Justice Dept. announcing a three-ring child porn bust, though nothing to indicate these include the Georgia-based "Spanking Club.") I don't suppose this case will get any of the probing, thoughtful treatment which news magazines and talk shows usually like to give remarkable current events, sordid or otherwise. It's a good bet that no expert opinions or interviews with the parties involved are sought to help the public better understand this activity so monstrous and shocking. Nor do I imagine any newspaper editors or columnists will see fit to address the story at all, even though there's pages worth to be said and asked about it beyond the obvious condemnation. Even the sensationalist tabloid media may be scared away by this one.

Flagellant sexual abuse of children is a sobering and sickening topic all right. But it's clear that society can't afford to keep sweeping it under the rug.


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